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A Brief Correspondence on Copernicus, Descartes, Kant, Darwin, Freud, George Ellis and Thomas Nagel (among Others)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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My friend Gabriel Finkelstein is an historian of science whose most recent book, Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany, profiles a 19th-century German polymath who was extraordinarily prescient about science’s potential and limits. Last fall, I re-posted a great Q&A that MIT Press, his publisher, carried out with Gabriel.

The scientific and philosophical insights of 19th-century German polymath Emil du Bois-Reymond are as relevant as ever, says historian of science Gabriel Finkelstein of the University of Colorado Denver.

Gabriel, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, recently watched me and my fellow science writer George Johnson chatter on about, among other things, physicist George Ellis’s critique of other physicists’ critiques of philosophy; philosopher Thomas Nagel’s complaint about how modern science handles consciousness (see also my post on Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos); and the “neo-green” perspective of the Breakthrough Institute. Gabriel sent me the letter below, which I enjoyed so much that I’m posting it here.

Dear John, Your conversation with George Johnson raises several issues of historical interest. Here are three that came to mind.

1. There’s an old tradition of scientists bashing philosophy. The German neurophysiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond remarked in 1880:

Since Kant transformed the discipline, philosophy has taken on so esoteric a character, has so forgotten the language of common sense and plain thought, has so evaded the questions that most deeply stir our youth, or treated them condescendingly as officious speculations, and finally, has so opposed the rise of science, that it is not surprising that even the recollection of its earlier achievements has been lost.

2. George Johnson’s analysis of scientific revolutions also comes from du Bois-Reymond. Here’s a portion of du Bois-Reymond’s obituary of Darwin:

Darwin seems to me to be the Copernicus of the organic world. In the sixteenth century Copernicus put an end to the anthropocentric theory by doing away with the Ptolemaic spheres and bringing our earth down to the rank of an insignificant planet. At the same time he proved the non-existence of the so-called empyrean, the supposed abode of the heavenly hosts, beyond the seventh sphere, although Giordano Bruno was the first who actually drew the inference.

Man, however, still stood apart from the rest of animated beings—not at the top of the scale, his proper place, but quite away, as a being absolutely incommensurable with them. One hundred years later Descartes still held that man alone had a soul, and that beasts were mere automata. Notwithstanding all the labor of naturalists since the days of Linnaeus, notwithstanding the resurrection of vanished genera and species by Cuvier, the theory of the origin and interdependence of living things, which was almost universal five-and-twenty years ago, was only equaled in arbitrariness, artificiality, and absurdity by the celebrated theory of Epicycles, which caused Alfonso of Castile to exclaim, “If God had asked my advice when he created the world, I should have managed things much better.”

Johnson then brings up Thomas Nagel’s argument for consciousness as the third Copernican revolution in science. This recall’s Freud’s remarks on Copernicus and Darwin in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, tr. and ed. James Strachey (1915-17; reprint, New York; London: Norton, 1989), 353.[1] Freud says he’s the third blow to man’s narcissism. Lucille Ritvo claims that Freud got this idea from reading Ernst Haeckel’s Natural History of Creation.[2] Haeckel long held that consciousness was inherent in matter, much as the philosopher Galen Strawson does today.

3. Finally, your comments on environmentalism bring to mind this joke:

Q. What’s the definition of an environmentalist?

A. Someone who already owns a second home in the woods.


1. Sigmund Freud, “Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse” (1916-17 [1915-17]), in Studienausgabe, ed. Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards and James Strachey, 5th edn., 11 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1989), [Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse und neue Folge] 1: 34-445, on 238-239, quoted by Werner Michler, Darwinismus und Literatur: Naturwissenschaftliche und literarische Intelligenz in Österreich, 1859-1914 (Vienna; Cologne; Weimar: Böhlau, 1999), 100.

2. Lucille B. Ritvo, Darwin’s Influence on Freud: A Tale of Two Sciences (New Haven: London: Yale, 1990), 22-30; Haeckel, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Gemeinverständliche wissenschaftliche Vorträge über die Entwickelungslehre im Allgemeinen und diejenige von Darwin, Goethe und Lamarck im Besonderen, über die Anwendung derselben auf den Ursprung des Menschen und andere damit zusammenhängende Grundfragen der Naturwissenschaft (Berlin: Reimer, 1868), 30.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rshoff2 6:21 pm 08/4/2014

    How can physics ‘critique’ philosophy?! Or a physicist critique a philosopher? Simply put, physics is about the components of reality. Physics can build a case for philosophy or a philosophical perspective but it cannot ‘critique’ it because philosophy is an entire system. It’s the sum of the parts, whereas physics is only one or more of the components.

    That would be like the toaster critiquing the kitchen. Or the layman critiquing the scientist. Oops. Hitting close to home there…

    Link to this
  2. 2. M Tucker 4:30 pm 08/5/2014

    A physicist can be a philosopher and a philosopher can be a physicist. And laymen frequently critique scientists.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 11:51 am 08/6/2014

    I really enjoyed the George Ellis interview. You ought to do more with him.

    Link to this
  4. 4. rshoff2 1:23 pm 08/10/2014


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  5. 5. rshoff2 1:47 pm 08/12/2014

    Okay, there’s a closed system. Let’s call it a toolbox.

    The toolbox contains a hammer, a pencil with paper, a level, a measuring tape, and a screwdriver.

    The toolbox seems pretty complete. Until the hammer says “Hey, this toolbox is missing nails. There is no purpose without nails.” the screwdriver pipes in -“All we need are screws, nails don’t even exist. They are not feasible because they do not turn. Anyone with a brain would know that”

    The tape measure is sitting there quietly with not much to add. It figures it has nothing measurable to contribute because the hammer and nail seem to be brilliant in their arguments.

    The pencil seems to feel complete. The universe is good. “I can draw all the designs necessary to define life. The universe is good and complete. That should be obvious to everybody.”

    The level. Well, it’s quite chagrined. “You idiots, this toolbox is missing a wall!”

    They all settle down when the ignorant layman slams the lid, grabs the toolbox, throws it in his pickup, then drives to his job-site building the world in which we live.

    Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who is ignorant? Who is brilliant?

    Any one of us or those in any one profession cannot possibly understand the whole. That can only be done by all of us together paying attention to the most powerful and the weakest. The brightest and the most challenged. The accomplished and those struggling. We all make up humanity, and humanity is only focused on the task at hand. Survival. We are a small entity looking through a tiny hole out to a vast universe. We must listen. Intently. To each other. That is the only way forward.

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